Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor: An Interview with Rob Nixon

Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor was published this spring by Harvard University Press. Nixon’s work has been crucial to articulating the conjunction — as well as the fault lines — between postcolonial studies and ecocriticism. As the baleful impact of climate chaos becomes increasingly apparent around the world, the kinds of intellectual affiliations and openings charted in Nixon’s work become ever more important. I conducted this interview with him via email exchange in August 2011.
AD: The key conceptual framework for your book lies in the notion of slow violence.  Can you explain how you developed this concept and how you see it as efficacious in struggles for environmental justice?
RN: We are accustomed to conceiving of violence as immediate and explosive, as erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But I wanted to revisit this assumption and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. By that I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges posed by environmental calamities.
Environmentalists face a fundamental challenge: How can we devise arresting stories, images, and symbols that capture the pervasive but elusive effects of slow violence? Climate change, the thawing cryosphere, toxic drift, deforestation, the radioactive aftermaths of wars, oil spills, acidifying oceans, and a host of other slowly unfolding environmental crises confront us with formidable representational obstacles that hinder efforts to mobilize for change. All of these processes originate in catastrophic actions, but actions that do not lend themselves to spectacular representation.
At the heart of slow violence is the paradox of the long-term emergency. We’re taught to deal with immediate emergencies first, then turn to the long-term. Long-term can wait. But while we’re waiting for the right time to address the long-term emergencies, those emergencies aren’t static — in the interim, they’re being compounded; often they encroach more and more emphatically on the present. If you look at the climate crisis, for example, for decades it has been described as a five-minutes-to-midnight crisis. We pretend we have stopped the clock — that those five minutes can stay suspended for an eternity, while politicians get on with supposedly more pressing issues that determine mid-term election after mid-term election.   
In thinking through these issues, I felt that redefining violence was a critical first step. Our cultural moment is in thrall to speed and spectacle, which has the effect of distorting our perception of what counts as violence. My central concern was to find a new way of drawing attention to the long dyings — the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological — that are underrepresented in strategic planning and official memory. In the U.S., 9/11 intensified a core assumption of the culture that Hollywood and the corporate media reinforce incessantly, namely, that violence is sudden, spectacular, cinematic, and technologically explosive. 
In addition to the representational challenges that slow violence poses, I am also concerned in the book by the economics of its manifestations. Those who, say, deploy depleted-uranium weaponry or dump toxic e-waste can wash their hands of the fatalities that result because what they’re doing doesn’t look like “real” violence. It’s not immediately, spectacularly, sensationally awful. There is no terrible sublime; it’s a violence that doesn’t lend itself to special effects. It’s a type of violence that is often bloodless and sufficiently displaced that — at least for those who live remote from the delayed fallout — by the time the casualties are incurred, the original fatal actions have sunk into what W.G. Sebald once called “the lagoon of oblivion.” Particularly in an age when regulatory oversight is in retreat, the agents of slow violence can build forgetfulness into their economic strategy. They know that, invariably, they won’t have to pay. 
I hope that the idea of slow violence can help activists put their finger on these critical crises of our times. And, also, of course, help activists find the language — and the strategies — that strengthen the widespread struggles against slow violence, struggles that ideally are preemptive but too often are ex post facto. 
My emphasis in this book is on the relationship between slow violence and activists in the global South as they pursue environmental justice. Certainly, one of the most pressing challenges of our age is how to adjust rapidly eroding attention spans to the slow erosions of environmental justice among communities that have the least access to media power.  
Finally, a word about language. I wanted to come up with a term that wasn’t too jargony. I didn’t want something that sounded like it would only circulate among, say, sociology scholars or even just academics. If we ranked the one thousand most common English words, “slow” and “violence” would surely be among them. By yoking those two simple words together in a frictional relationship, I hope to highlight the paradox of our urgent, long-term emergencies in a straightforward, communicable way. The issues at stake are too pressing to be delegated to the kind of ingrown, merely professional language that is all too pervasive in academe.
AD: As the concept of slow violence suggests, issues of temporality figure prominently in your readings of environmental struggles and the interventions of diverse writer-activists.  I’m interested in how the differential temporalities you discuss illuminate notions of risk in recent years.  To what extent do you see the offloading of risk onto vulnerable communities and individuals as linked to divergent models of time? 
RN: Critics of neoliberalism — and capitalism more broadly — have been voluble on the subject of geographical outsourcing (of jobs and environmental damage in particular). There’s a powerful tradition of such critiques, stretching back to Robert Bullard, to the roots of the environmental justice movement in the U.S. and beyond. Clearly, geographical outsourcing often perpetuates and exacerbates inequities between nations in the global North and the global South as well as between affluent and impoverished communities within a given nation. In the standard formula, capitalism internalizes the profits and externalizes the costs. I want to complement this well-established critique of often-racist geographical outsourcing with a detailed critique of temporal outsourcing. In particular, I want to ask: what does the environmental map look like if we keep in view, simultaneously, the fallout from geographical and temporal outsourcing?  
The standard environmentalist strategy to temporal outsourcing has been: what kind of world do you want your grandchildren to inherit? That obviously, for those who procreate, has a potent visceral appeal. But to put the matter that way is to contain the problem within the family metaphor — the nuclear family, the national family, the family of “man.” It was exactly such family-values thinking about environmental time that prompted the attack that a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture leveled against Rachel Carson: “Why is a spinster with no children so concerned about genetics? She must be a communist.” Moreover, what the grandchild approach obs
cures is the role of transnational, often imperial economic practices whereby someone else’s grandchildren — in a distant land and a distant decade — will be inheriting the problems that affluent people in the here and now outsource to them. 
If we look back fifty years at Silent Spring, we can recognize Carson’s immensely influential role in warning of the intergenerational costs of continuing to slather the environment with toxins. But we’re living in different times from Carson. Her focus moves between local risks, national risks to Americans, and planetary risks. For all her prescience, what Carson couldn’t have anticipated was the increased pace and scale of globalization, especially during the past thirty years of neoliberalism. In other words, we need to supplement her work with the vast understanding of transnational outsourcing that we have accrued in the interim. 
There are times when a planetary approach to the environment can be strategically valuable, but the planetary isn’t synonymous with the transnational. Crucially for our understanding of temporal outsourcing, the “we” derived from a transnational approach isn’t the same as the “we” derived from a planetary approach. The latter more readily tilts toward a universalizing, transcendental analysis in a way that sets up the problem as humanity’s problem without discriminating among the slow violence unleashed by different national and transnational actors. An insistence on transnational approaches to environmental time allows us to keep in view more easily long-term disparities in power between nations as well as the power wielded by shape shifting corporations that operate from behind elusive, historically mobile transnational identities. 
AD: Do you feel that the concept of climate justice is a valuable rubric around which to mobilize?
RN: Yes, I do feel that climate justice is a vital rubric. To just say we have a global climate crisis without discriminating among actors — historical and contemporary — is to distort the crisis. To have some European and American leader lecture global southerners on a climate crisis mostly not of their making is an affront and counter-productive. Especially when, as is sometimes the case, those leaders have helped implement the very neoliberal policies that have exacerbated the effects of the crisis on the global South. 
We are, of course, a very long way from getting the language and logic of climate justice accepted, especially in the wealthier nations. In the U.S., in particular, there are vested interests — vested interests with deep pockets — that are dead set against admitting the straightforward science, unanimously accepted by climate scientists, that the climate is changing dramatically, catastrophically and that such change is principally the result of human activity, especially in the long industrialized nations of the North. 
The energy corporations and allied big business interests are going to continue demanding `balance’ in coverage by media that they largely own. As someone has remarked, that’s like asking for balanced coverage of the perspectives of slaveholders and abolitionists. 
When the society that has contributed most to human-induced climate change drags its feet interminably, the ideals of climate justice can seem very, very remote, even utopian. But I remain convinced that it is essential to keep the rhetoric of climate justice front and center, as a way of applying pressure on pervasive universalist approaches to climate chaos that insist that we made this mess and that we’re all in this together. Neither of those statements is accurate. I find such species thinking profoundly unhelpful.
AD: To what extent is the concept of slow violence a retrospective theoretical construct? I ask this because climate chaos is arguably taking on increasingly immediate and violent forms, something hinted at in the concept of the Great Acceleration that you mention in your book. I’m thinking in particular of what Christian Parenti recently called the catastrophic conjunction of climate chaos and political instability in various parts of the world. To what extent does slow violence clarify this conjuncture?  How do we balance the long-term harms associated with phenomena such as toxicity with the increasingly immediate and dire impact of climate chaos in places such as the Horn of Africa, as well as in various drought-ridden parts of the contemporary U.S.?
RN: Yes, slow violence does have a retrospective force. The Nobel prize-winning scientist, Paul Crutzen, popularized the term the Anthropocene eleven years ago, to bring home the massive impact that humans, from the industrial era onwards, have had on the planet’s life systems, an impact that is geomorphic — equal in force and in long-term implications to a major geological event. The notion of the Anthropocene — and the thinking that underlies it — has since gained a lot of traction.  
Subsequently, Crutzen and others added the term the Great Acceleration to convey the upsurge in anthropogenically-driven CO2 emissions since around 1950. The Great Acceleration speaks to something that’s very central to my book, namely the contemporary politics of speed — the way the cultural glamor that speed has accrued warps our understanding of how violence operates.
The Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration are rightly being taken seriously by leading scientists, but we also need to place pressure on those notions, to complicate them, by insisting that this quasi-geological agent, Homo sapiens, hasn’t been acting in concert as a species, but differentially: many communities, many nations, have contributed very little over the past two hundred odd years to these epochal changes. We need to yoke together geological and geopolitical perspectives — the geological alone is insufficient.
With regard to the Horn of Africa and the catastrophic conjunction of climate chaos and political instability, it is clear that the regional violence is historically layered, some of it overt and immediate in its effects, some more covert and delayed and thus less recognizable as violence. The Horn was a critical casualty of the Cold War, as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea were variously backed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which at one point switched sides. In the process, the superpowers flooded the region with arms. We are still living with the long aftermath, the chronic instability that those actions unleashed.
In a lawless environment, the effects of climate chaos are compounded because whatever environmental knowledge pastoralists, in particular, have amassed is undone by constraints on their movements. One kind of destabilization exacerbates another: warlords; desertification; interrupted seasonal migrations that previously helped better distribute the stress pastoralists placed on the environment; climate chaos; and, most recently and unbelievably, the purchase of large tracts of these bitterly poor nations by rich country corporations based in Europe, North American, the Middle East, and Asia, corporations which then grow export crops or biofuels. . . . all these factors compound each other. There is no single time frame within which the consequences of all this are lived. 
AD: One of the many strengths of your book is its emphasis on the centrality of representation and aesthetics in struggles over the environment and social justice. Can you explain the role you see for engaged writing in relation to struggles for environmental justice?  How does a politics of genre figure in such aesthetic struggles?
RN: Nadine Gordimer
once remarked that writers who believe in “the transformation of society are always seeking ways of doing so that their societies could never imagine, let alone demand.” In undertaking the research for my book, I was astonished by the creativity, tenacity, and strategic energy that writers and other artists have brought to the representational challenges that slow violence poses. In the process, they have experimented with — and reinvented — many different genres and media.
Some of the writers who aligned themselves with the environmentalism of the poor — writers like Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wangari Maathai — helped instigate movements that campaigned for environmental justice; others, like Indra Sinha (in relation to the Bhopal disaster) and Arundhati Roy (in opposition to megadams on the Narmada River) appended themselves to well-established movements, deploying their talents to amplify those causes internationally. 
The question of genre is critical. I was insistent, from the outset, that I didn’t want to limit myself to the novel, but to include the huge variety of non-fictional forms that are often not treated seriously by literary scholars. Sure, I wanted to consider how slow violence — and resistance to it — played out in novelistic forms like the environmental picaresque and the collective historical novel. But I also wanted to look at the boundless creativity with which writer-activists have approached non-fictional forms: the collective memoir, public science writing, travel writing, the manifesto, the polemic, the essay, the non-fictional collage. 
I think non-fiction becomes ever more crucial with the transition from analog to digital activism. So many of the most powerful creative forms today involve non-fictional mini-narratives, often narratives that fuse verbal and visual elements. We have entered the age of the world, the text, and the critic in 140 characters or less. These staccato, mixed-media non-fictional forms are playing an increasingly prominent role in what it means to be a public intellectual and writer-activist.
In our age of degraded attention spans it becomes doubly difficult to focus on the toll exacted, over time, by the slow violence of ecological degradation. We live, as Cory Doctorow suggests, in an era when the electronic screen has become an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” But by the same token these interruption technologies also have a huge potential for creating high-speed activist connections, given the right circumstances.  
AD: Although you mention neoliberalism and imperialism quite often in Slow Violence, there are relatively few references in your book to the relation between the ecological crisis and the capitalist system.  Do you agree with James O’Connor and other eco-socialists when they argue that there is a fundamental contradiction between capitalism and environmental sustainability?  To what extent, in other words, is slow violence a manifestation of capitalism’s inexorable need to expand surplus accumulation?  What makes the previous few decades distinct in terms of the century-spanning patterns of the capitalist system?
RN: You’re right, the focus of the book’s critique is very much on neoliberalism and imperialism rather than capitalism per se. At one point, I thought of enfolding a broader assessment of the relationship between capitalism and environmental sustainability, but I came to realize that that would have made an already large book unwieldy. 
I decided, in the end, to focus on four ambitions. First, to lay out a theory of slow violence. Second, to document, in some detail, the creativity with which activist-writers in the global South have responded to the representational challenges that slow violence poses. These writers come from various parts of Africa, the Middle East, India, and the Caribbean. Third, I decided to limit myself to environmental justice movements and writers from the past thirty years, from that particular phase of capitalism known as neoliberalism which has seen, among other things, rampant deregulation, accelerated globalization, and a widening of the gulf between rich and poor within and between nations. Fourth, and finally, I wanted to bring postcolonial studies and environmental studies into conversation, to lay out some of the potential common ground between them, despite their longstanding mutual suspicion.
So a broad critique of capitalism in relation to environmental sustainability — building on the work of James O’Connor and others — fell out of that purview. Capitalism’s ravenous appetite for surplus accumulation has without question been the primary engine behind the slow violence that shadows us. The drive for surplus accumulation, the drives to privatize and monopolize. . . all these things are patently unsustainable. What we are facing is not a population problem but a consumption-and-surplus-accumulation problem. And, clearly, capitalism is at the heart of that. 
Fredric Jameson has observed that at this point in history “it is easier to imagine the end of the planet than the end of capitalism.” I agree, although with one significant reservation. I find it extremely hard to imagine the end of the planet, but less hard to imagine the end of one of the planet’s most influential inhabitants, the species Homo sapiens. Even then, I suspect that if climate chaos, in particular, is not addressed, some people will survive, though in unimagined social forms and very diminished numbers. What I have no trouble envisaging is, in the fullest sense of the phrase, a biologically varied new phase of evolution that, in the fullest sense of the phrase, is post-human. 
AD: Despair seems to be the dominant emotion of our times.  As Marc Abélès recently observed, we no longer seem capable of imagining a collective future for humanity.  More specifically, there seem to be no policy fixes for the increasingly obvious forms of climate chaos that threaten to overwhelm the relative environmental stability the planet has enjoyed for much of the last 10,000 years.  How can we combat apathy and, even worse, despair in the face of the apparent gridlock of negotiations at the U.N. and on a national scale?
RN: Despair, yes, but also insurrection. 2011 will go down as a year of what John Berger once called “undefeated despair.” This has been a year of extraordinary, widespread uprisings: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Spain, Greece, Chile, the UK, Palestine, South Africa, Malawi, Wisconsin, Israel, and elsewhere. The fires of discontent keep spreading and, however diverse the circumstances, it is becoming very hard for authoritarians and plutocrats to keep that discontent in check. First, growing digital access means that inspiration travels fast and often makes a vivid impression. (Authoritarians understand and fear this: case in point, Mugabe’s regime arrested forty-six Zimbabweans for watching footage of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings). Second, 2011 may well mark a tipping point in many societies in terms of state answerability. A common complaint — and spark for the uprisings — has been the charge that the state is failing to shelter citizens from the headwinds of neoliberal austerity which, of course is just bankers’ code for privatization and asset stripping. Disillusionment with globalization may not be universal, but it is profound and widespread. 
Whatever the immediate trigger — soaring bread prices, soaring education costs, housing costs, abrogated collective bargaining rights, vanishing social benefits, evaporating health care, spiraling unemployment, or elite profligacy — a common theme emerges: the widening gulf between out-of-touch, materially cosseted el
ites and ordinary citizens who are less and less able to make ends meet or imagine doing so in the future. There is widespread, transnational discontent with the failure of the state to be actively present in citizens’ lives in terms of elementary service delivery and safety n
ets. A second persistent concern is this: the gap between the haves and the never-will-haves cannot keep expanding indefinitely without social implosions on a scale that cannot be contained by mere force. Third, there is no illusion that democracy in name — but neoliberal austerity in practice — will be sufficient to tamp down people’s outrage. Increasingly, the populist cry is for justice, fairness, and access to resources, rather than for a democracy that brings with it declining material benefits. 
In short, I do see despair, but more active despair than apathy. Some creative strategies — and productive alliances — are arising from that.
AD: The world’s militaries and elites are preparing themselves for the worst, and adopting a kind of bunker mentality as climate chaos begins to bite. How do we challenge the increasingly assertive forms of xenophobia and racism that are associated with reactions to climate chaos?
RN: Xenophobia and racism are rampant, no question. And they’re not going away any time soon. Part of the push back against such displaced hatred involves exposing the resource grab for what it is, rather than buying into the rhetoric and policies of austerity, which pit the poor against the even poorer. Campaigns to promote alternative understandings of this dire, incrementally violent phase of capitalist accumulation are often grass roots in origin and energy. As we have seen with the dissident response to, for example, neoliberal efforts to privatize water across the global South, you don’t have to possess a formal education to grasp the relationship between asset-stripping and elite efforts to break up alliances among embattled groups.
Walled off communities, private jets, private security details are spreading like kudzu around the world. Fortunately, from the perspective of environmental justice, many, probably most, of the world’s wealthiest cities are close to sea level. The incalculable value of that property, together with the accelerating effects of climate chaos mean that neither urban desertion nor a bunker mentality will be a viable response, even in the medium term. There’s no way that faced with such heightened risk the wealthy can simply hope to keep on building higher walls — literal or symbolic ones. The scale and pervasiveness of the problem preclude that.
AD: Much of the most vibrant political action in the North in recent years, particularly in the global justice movement, has come from anarchist circles.  Yet in relation to ecological questions, these same currents seem to be involved in overwhelmingly local struggles over the food system, gentrification, permaculture design, etc.  To what extent are these Left currents the product of peculiar constructions of the environment in the global North?  How can we overcome the parochial traits of the environmental movement, particularly in the global North?
RN: I am glad you raised this, Ashley. The question of parochialism is critical. This past spring, when Chileans gathered to protest the building of five megadams in the south of their country, their president’s response was: “I’m more interested in people than in trees,” as if people and the ecosystems they depended on wouldn’t also be adversely affected. On the other hand, if we look at Wangari Maathai and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, we see how advocacy for trees and for immiserated rural women became powerfully, productively entangled. Indeed, the GBM used the theatre of the tree to regenerate a language of grass roots democracy. Maathai recast the simple act of digging a hole and putting a sapling in it as a way of “planting the seeds of peace.” As such, the GBM warded off the charge of being anti-human enviromentalists, lackeys of the West. Instead, their methods and rhetoric helped them foster alliances between environmental justice advocates, student groups and groups campaigning for women’s rights and civil rights. All were committed to a long-term vision of sustainable security against the smash-and-grab resource plunder that defined the arap Moi regime. 
To stay with this example of the tree: economically, symbolically that tree is inherently unstable. Politically it’s up for grabs. What is counter-productive is for powerful Western environmental interests to barge in, as they did in Chile, and start talking about defending Chile’s “pristine wilderness.” That language and that attitude sounds imperialistic. We have to listen to — and work with — local environmental activists who possess a textured sense of the environmental values that emanate from and mesh with other values that permeate their communities. There’s no guarantee that these grass roots tactics will work; sometimes the alliances hold, sometimes they do not. But it’s almost certain that high-and-mighty Western pronouncements will fail. And, in failing, do something far more damaging long term, namely compound the suspicion of environmental discourse across much of the global South, a suspicion grounded in a long colonial history of an anti-human environmentalism that has created, among other things, wave upon wave of conservation refugees. 
Fortunately, I think that missionary attitude of spreading the environmental gospel to the global South, of converting and incorporating the eco-heathens into the eco-enlightenment is waning. What we’re witnessing is a far deeper recognition — across the global South and the North — that environmental thinking has richly diverse genealogies. Those lineages of thought are not always in alignment, clearly. But the effort to reconcile sometimes frictional environmental values is vastly preferable to the missionary position. 
AD: In Slow Violence you criticize the academic left for eschewing the role of public intellectuals and instead getting caught up in what you call stale hermetic close readings, on the one hand, and the incomprehensible formalism of deconstruction, on the other.  There is relatively little sense of political urgency about tackling ecological issues and social justice in the academy right now, despite dire warnings emanating from scientists such as James Hansen and journalists such as Christian Parenti. Why do you think there is so little fire in our bellies and how might we stoke such fire?
RN: I think the fire is there, but it has largely been tamped down into a state of medicalized anomie. There are three issues that get my students fired up more than any others: the cost of education, jobs, and the environment. All three concern their future, but all three are susceptible to a radical social analysis and a social justice-centered activism. The injustice that students inhabit is a class and race-based injustice, but also a generational one that has a powerful environmental component. They want to imagine a viable future and recognize that re-imagining the way we approach the environment is a huge part of that. Students come alive, in the classroom, in group projects, and on the streets (as they did in Madison this past spring), when they can use their new media skills to bear witness to injustice and, concomitantly, to bear witness to the creative solidarities of the present. Most of the students I encounter refuse the jobs vs. environment trade off that Republican governors insist is a necessary austerity trade off, a position that, too often, the Democrats buy into.
What the students long for, it seems, is more active, more creative government leadership, leadership that invests in the future. That and a more participatory democracy which the students are quite capable of ma
king happen, when the opportunity presents itself, as they did recently in Madison.  
We come back, again, to a kind of slow violence eroding their generational opportunities, starting with the erosion of educational investment at all levels. That’s a huge story but, in media terms, a slow, corrosive story rather than a spectacular, explosive one. In my book, I adapt Kevin Bale’s term “disposable people” and link it to the idea of disposable ecosystems. My focus is the global south, but my Wisconsin students get it. I think many of them feel that their generation — and the environment that must uphold them in the decades ahead — have both been treated contemptuously as disposable. 
9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now the recession have collectively shrunk the appeal, in the American academy, of the rarified professional parlor games that were once pervasive, particularly in the humanities. Willful, self-absorbed obscurity is seeming less and less like a viable professional model for the students now coming through, except perhaps for a few trust fund bohemians whose future, at least financially, has already been secured.  
Let me add one more thing: what it means to be a public intellectual is becoming more and more visual and less and less verbal. There is still a verbal role, but there’s no point in pretending that the figure of the public intellectual is a constant and that Adorno, Carson, Said, or even Saro-Wiwa are role models for the twenty-first century’s second decade. They can still inspire us, of course, but adaptively. If we’re looking for places within academe that foster dynamic, public engagement, two lively places are the environmental humanities and the digital humanities. Both are necessarily interdisciplinary and multi-platform, mixing old media with new, nontraditional media. These are both exhilarating developments. Without re-imagining themselves in interdisciplinary terms, an English or a Philosophy department risks appearing like a glacial erratic — one of those big boulders that sits there in odd, puzzling isolation and gets people scratching their heads and wondering: how the hell did that huge thing end up way over there, so far from where all the action is?

Rob Nixon is Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.


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